By James Battye. This piece originally appeared here
Last night Nordic Horizons arranged a seminar reflecting on local government in Norway and in Scotland. The presentations and discussion were really interesting but I was left feeling almost ashamed at the near complete lack of local democratic control in this country — in particular that we don’t seem to really care about it.
Norway currently has 426 municipalities (soon to be reduced to 350), Scotland by comparison has only 32 local authorities. Norwegian municipalities do smart — or simply just practical — things like job sharing certain key posts like heads of education and allowing part time working. Trust is also a key part of the arrangement in Norway. Surveys continually back up the fact that Norwegians trust their government.
That is a huge contrast to the situation in Scotland. My perception is that in Scotland — and indeed across the UK — we have a deep mistrust of government. This is not helped by the almost total lack of clarity about how local services are funded.
How many people know that a mere 12–15% of local government revenue is raised through council tax? Local government has next to no control over how income is raised and is tasked with increasingly impossible tasks, like managing the delivery of essential services for our ageing population. As local electorates see small council tax increases sold on a promise to improve these services this situation unfortunately seems set to deteriorate further.
The way forward seems — somewhat predictably — difficult. But a few things might help us find our way.
Participatory budgeting has seen small but important steps in the right direction, demonstrating that local communities can play a role in the future of their place. (Organisations like Demsoc have some good guides on this type of stuff.) Community shares are another example of giving communities control over what happens in their local areas. Efforts to demand greater clarity over tax and spend decisions by the Open Government programme being led in Scotand by SCVO are also very helpful.
Combine this with a modest increase in the number of Councillors as David O’Neill from COSLA persuasively argued could also act as another bridge between local electorates and local decision-making.
Then we might begin to care again about how decisions are made.
One of the most frustrating things, and a point made very persuasively by Andy Wightman MSP, is that control over the balance of power between central and local government is entirely within the power of the Scottish Government — we could reform this now if we wanted to. And so a government seeking to implement a radical agenda of reform should look no further than local government, returning real control over local decision-making to the people affected by them.
If local democracy is your thing you can watch the whole event here.